Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 18

Atma Is Neither Body Nor Mind


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Read Part 17 of the series...

A summary of the contents of the first eight verses of Chapter 15 of Upadesa Sahasri, together with an analysis of the need for enquiry into the real naure of the Self (Atma) was presented in Part 17. In this article, it is  proposed to deal with the topic discussed in the rest of the chapter (Verses 9 to 54).

Verses 9 to 37 form the central topic of this chapter, dealing with the precise ascertainment of the nature of the Self (Atma svarupa nischayam). 

The main point highlighted in this portion is that I am neither the body nor the mind, but I am the Consciousness which pervades and illumines both in an invisible manner (like fire pervading hot water and ghee pervading milk).  I,  the Consciousness, am the Witness (Sakshi) of whatever happens in the body and the conditions of the mind.    

Sankaracharya devotes particular attention to the exercise of distinguishing Atma from the mind for two reasons.  One is that the mind is very proximate to the Sakshi, leading to an obvious mix-up, and the other is that the mind serves as an instrument besides being an object.

A number of verses in this portion are devoted to an analysis of the three states of mind--waking, dream and sleep (jagrat, svapna and sushupti), popularly known as avasthatraya vichara.

Mind in the waking state is entertaining thoughts generated by the external world (pramana janya vrittikam), while in dream the mind entertains thoughts generated from memory and impressions (vasana janya vrittikam).  In deep sleep, there is total absence of thoughts in the mind (nirvritikam), brought  about  by a temporary suspension of prarabdha

Free from Thoughts

Though the mind goes through  these three states, I, the Witness Consciousness, am free from  all of these and remain the changeless illuminator.  From the standpoint of the state of the mind, I, the Consciousness, am given the names of visva, taijasa, prajnya in waking, dream and sleep states, respectively.  Just because names change, I do not undergo any change (unlike in the wordly parlance, change in the name signifies a different object).

Other Features

The other features of Atma (or my essential nature) highlighted by the author in this portion can be summarised as follows:

  1. Atma is non-dual (ekatvam or advitiyatvam)
  2. Atma is eternal (nityaha)
  3. Atma is all-pervasive (sarvagataha)
  4. Atma is free from defects  (suddhatvam)
  5. Atma is self-evident (svayam prakasatvam)
  6. Atma is tranquil (santatvam)
  7. Atma is free from attributes (nirgunatvam)
  8. Atma is indivisible and without parts (nishkalatvam)
  9. Atma is free from fear (nirbhayatvam)
  10. Atma  is free from change (nirvikaratvam)
  11. Atma is beyond verbal description (nirupakyatvam or vachamagocharatvam)
  12. Atma is free from action and results (akartrutvam–abhoktrutvam)

That Atma is free from actions (akarta) is specifically emphasised by the author with a highly striking illustration.  Just as a snake coming out of its hide-out becoming visible in sunlight is figuratively explained as being illumined by sunlight, though there is no deliberate action of illumination by the sun, Consciousness by its mere presence makes things known and there is no action on the part of Consciousness.

Thus, it is clearly established that my essential nature is, indeed, infinite and immortal.  I do not, therefore, need to struggle to become infinite and all that I need to do is to drop all erroneous  and superimposed notions of finitude, mortality and other attendant limitations.


From Verses 38 to 51, Sankaracharya enters into a discussion on what really constitutes Self-knowledge (Atma Jnanam).  Before answering this question, we need to clearly understand what is the nature of the Self (Atma) itself.  Scriptures tell us that Atma is not a known or knowable object and that it is not unknown either. 

Also, Atma is not even a knower.  On the strength of these revelations, it is found that Atma does not fall within the process of knowing or experiencing.  Atma is self-evident Consciousness beyond even the scope of Time, or kala atita, (and, therefore, existing even before the rise of any experience) because of which all ordinary and extraordinary experiences are possible.

Removal of Misconceptions

Therefore, when the scriptures talk about Atma Jnanam, it should not be taken as knowing Atma as a new entity.  It is only the removal of all misconceptions related to the self-evident Atma, which is figuratively called Atma Jnanam. 

The biggest mistake is to consider Atma as a product of matter.  When all misconceptions are removed, Atma Jnanam will be in the form of “I am Brahman.”  Brahman here is a technical term revealing a state of attributelessness and cannot be taken as an attribute of Atma.    

Benefits of Self-Knowledge

In Verses 51 to 54, the author winds up the chapter by presenting the benefit of Atma Jnanam.  A wise person gets the benefit of freedom from emotional and intellectual problems unique to human beings.  He will also be released from the cycle of birth and death once the current body falls off.    

Based on the famous Mundaka Upanishad mantra, it is pointed out that one who is a knower of Brahman will be free of all ignorance and doubts.  He will also have exhausted all his karmas. Even prarabdha karma will cease to exist as far as he is concerned, though it may be relevant only from the standpoint of ignorant people.

The author reinforces the point that Self-knowledge is the only means for liberation.  The chapter is concluded with the assertion that the author has presented the scriptural teaching in a highly lucid manner, fully supported by logic and appropriate illustrations.  It is intended that a spiritual seeker needs to study primary texts, such as Upadesa Sahasri, before getting exposed to study of original scriptures.


Read Part 19 of the series...

Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.



Page last updated: 05-May-2014